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Barely a month into his Premiership, Gordon Brown has unveiled his new security proposals. Announcing the proposed measures in the House of Commons on the 25th July 2007, Brown elegantly underlined his belief in parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, and threw down the gauntlet for a genuine era of consensual politics.
The proposal themselves are wide-ranging but cover the familiar ground of New Labour’s security project: the commitment to ID cards; the e-border programme; enhanced cooperation with Europe and beyond; and investment and focus in communities. These are well-trodden paths, but have been given fresh impetus by the ‘Brown bounce’. Brown also outlined his desire to refine the Joint Intelligence Committee to ensure the independence of security and intelligence assessment from political interference. He also talked of reviewing critical infrastructure protection (particularly prescient in view of the recent floods) and the security of crowded events: the spectre of Olympic Security loomed large. The use of intercept evidence in court proceedings will be subject to an all-party review and, borrowing one of the Tory party’s pet security projects, he announced the creation of a unified border guard integrating the Immigration, Customs, and Visa authorities. And, of course, there was the continued and controversial confrontation with detention without charge which Brown intends to extend to a maximum of 56 days but which will be balanced by increased judicial oversight, independent case-by-case review, parliamentary notification, and annual scrutiny debates.
None of the proposals are particularly surprising. After the attacks of June that coincided, deliberately or otherwise, with his Prime Ministerial ascendancy, his official spokesman emphasised that there would be no rush to new legislation. He well knew that such a rush was uncalled for and irrelevant: Brown had been working on his counter-terror proposals for a long period of time. In speeches delivered in 2006 at RUSI and Chatham House, sprinkled with media messages up to June 2007, Brown had given clear indications of all his major security positions (stand-fast the functional and in many ways obvious creation of the unified border operation). And whilst his commitment to cabinet government and his zealous pursuit of parliamentary scrutiny marks a change of tone and behaviour from his predecessor, the security trajectory reflects not so much change, as continuity.
The issue (as was perhaps predictable) which has caught the polemical and political imagination is that of detention without charge. Brown is convinced of the necessity of such measures in certain circumstances in order to avert attacks, where huge quantities of information has to be sifted, or where assistance from other countries is required: he cites recent investigations as clear examples of the requirement of such laws. The Tories demand new evidence of the necessity for these measures exclaiming that these are the same arguments recounted in earlier unsuccessful attempts to extend detention without charge. The Liberal Democrats eloquently and passionately patrol the battle lines of civil liberties and human rights. Alongside questioning after charge, it is clear that the clamour for these powers by the Police and associated enforcement and prosecutorial functions will not abate: there is an ultimate and persuasively trumping argument that the nature of the threat is so unique and different that only through such legislation will it be able to be confronted successfully. It would appear a reasonable assessment that Brown, through the invocation of consistent and enduring accountability in the best traditions of the constant British defence of liberty, will be rewarded with the powers he demands. Nevertheless, whilst the issue of detention without trial is of the gravest seriousness in relation to human rights, civil liberties and security, focus on this area of his proposals perhaps obfuscates the most significant change in national security since the end of the Cold War.
The splitting of the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office occurred amidst much lamenting of the emasculation of this antediluvian institution. But in the outpourings of justification, utility, irrelevance and impotence, the creation of the Office of Security and Counter-terrorism and its attendant directing committees was largely obscured. The Office was charged with directing and delivering the Government’s counter-terror strategy (CONTEST). Meanwhile, Brown, as Chancellor, had continued to articulate his desire for a single security budget which would require management and direction from a national security mechanism; Brown, following typical exhaustive research, was positively enthralled by the US National Security Council operating system. In an interview with the Sunday Times on November 12 2006, Brown spoke of the need for a seamless, integrated and politically overseen approach to national security.
With Brown now Prime Minister, and having appointed security servants who will both balance each other yet not encroach upon his political latitude, the space was clear to deliver this country’s national security architecture with the Prime Minister firmly in control. The Prime Minister will now sit at the head of a national security committee, which will decide, implement (and annually revise) a national security strategy encompassing domestic and international perspectives, along with traditional and non-traditional security motifs, and which will be supported by the single national security budget. It will direct the activities of the formal security apparatus, and set the tone and tempo of the informal security network of all government departments and the wider agenda: we are all in this together. The country will now have a security vision in which to frame its ambition and place in the world; to define clearly what Britain stands for in the twenty-first century theatre of security. From the lofty but ultimately hollow aspirations of New Labour’s 1997 ‘ethical foreign policy’, the government has now delivered the single-most important national security innovation since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first strategy will be published in Autumn.
Head of Resilience
26 July 2007
The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.